Five women dance to live music on the stage of the Ordway. They wear brilliantly colored silk with gold embroidery, lavish jewelry and bells around their ankles. Their pulled-back hair is held by white flowers, their eyes are outlined in black, their bare toes and fingertips red with dye. Their movements are strong, poetic and precise.
Now in its 28th year, Ragamala Dance Company is small but mighty, family-run and internationally acclaimed. Practitioners of a 2,000-year-old South Indian dance form called Bharatanatyam, founder Ranee Ramaswamy, her two daughters, Aparna and Ashwini, and company dancers Tamara Nadel and Jessica Fiala are golden threads in the tapestry of our arts scene.
Ranee emigrated from Chandanagore, India, to Burnsville, Minnesota, in 1978 with her husband and daughter Aparna. Ashwini was born in the United States. Ranee, Aparna and Ashwini are students of the legendary Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Alarmél Valli.
Through imaginative collaborations and with open minds, Ranee and Aparna, Ragamala’s co-artistic directors and choreographers, have made an ancient dance language speak to modern audiences. Ashwini, a choreographer in her own right, is doing the same in her work with Ragamala and her independent projects.
Ashwini’s first evening-length work, “Let the Crows Come,” had its Minneapolis debut at the Lab Theater in November 2019. Three months later, on Feb. 15, Ragamala performed at the Ordway. That was just a month before the mass coronavirus cancellations of March 13.
We spoke with Ashwini by phone on Thursday. This interview has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: Before COVID-19 hit, what did 2020 look like for you and Ragamala?
Ashwini Ramaswamy: I’ll speak for myself, then on behalf of Ranee and Aparna.
I was in a very strong position starting 2020. The premiere [in late 2019] of “Let the Crows Come” went well. Presenters flew in to see it. I had received a National Dance Project Touring Subsidy, and my agent was booking some nice tours.
“Crows” was going to have its New York premiere in early April. I was supposed to be in Amherst, Massachusetts, last week and Millersville, Pennsylvania, this week. These would have been my first major tours as a choreographer. They were going to create a path forward for my work in general. They didn’t happen. That stalled the momentum for sure. I was deeply, deeply disappointed. All those years of work, and all the people involved who now don’t get the paycheck for those tours.
Ragamala finished our tour in March in Red Wing. We were planning to focus April and May on our newest work, “Fires of Varanasi,” which is set to premiere in Los Angeles in October. It’s our biggest project ever. We were going to Italy for a residency in April and May. That wasn’t possible. We were going to do the bulk of the choreography there. We can do it here using Zoom, but it’s not the same as being together in the same place for three weeks, just creating.
MP: What have you been doing instead?
AR: I’m able to practice at home, and I’m working on my technique. Before, I hadn’t had time to just work on my craft. I’m able to spend two hours every morning thinking about how to become a better dancer and, in turn, a better dancemaker. I’ve been going back to basics, working on the pieces that our teacher taught us, building off that vocabulary. That’s been very satisfying.
I’m making videos from home, about different aspects of “Let the Crows Come” and a little bit of my practice. That was something I never would have done. People like taking that backstage look. We might continue doing things like that.
MP: All things considered, it sounds like you’re in a good place emotionally.
AR: In the larger scheme of things, based on what a lot of people are facing, I am. I’ve come to terms with things and just have to hope that everything will work out for the field. That when we come out of this, people are really going to want to see live performances. Not even just to support artists, but to feed themselves with what they need. Hopefully, they will be done with so much screen time and will want to be in a room with other people when they can, when that’s safe again.
MP: What was that week in March like for you, when everything came crashing down?
AR: On March 8, Ragamala performed in Red Wing with Indian musicians who had flown in. They were also working with us on developing the score for our next show. They were supposed to stay here for more than a week. But after two days, cities and airports were shutting down, and they needed to go home. There was a big rush to get some music figured out so we would have something to work with for the next show. Everything got fast tracked and our staff worked magic and got everybody home.
MP: A lot of dance companies, even successful ones that perform and tour a lot, live close to the edge. Are you concerned for Ragamala’s future?
AR: Everyone is concerned. We have a fundraising gala scheduled for the end of July. That’s looking dicey. We’re working really hard to keep creating. But it’s only been a month. It will depend more on what happens in the next several months. Fundraising, donors – there’s no way this is not going to impact them hugely.
We’re trying to keep communicating with our audiences. I’m constantly adding videos to our YouTube channel. I’m sending out a newsletter every week. Ragamala is a family business – very lean and scrappy, and we do all the jobs. We’ve always thought of our audiences and patrons as part of the family. We’re trying to keep that vibe alive.
I just believe so strongly in this [dance] form, and our teacher’s aesthetic that she has passed on to us, and what Ranee and Aparna and I continue to do with it, that I can’t allow myself to think that it will end.
MP: In one of your emails, you wrote, “This organization, and its founders, are resilient. We have weathered almost three decades as immigrant artists with a single-minded vision to make our voices heard.”
AR: I can’t imagine being my mom, and coming here from India in the late 1970s with no knowledge of how things work in this country, and building the organization by being so fearless and believing so deeply in the form, the mission, the work and what we’ve been given by our teacher.
It’s something we feel people need to be exposed to. It’s so important that people experience new cultures. It can’t go away. We need organizations [like Ragamala] to open people’s eyes about different ways of living, different cultures in a way that is very thoughtful, with a lot of purpose.
MP: You also wrote that you’re keeping all of your staff and dancers on salary.
AR: We’re still able to do that.
MP: How is this experience affecting your family?
AR: We’re used to seeing each other all the time, even on the weekends. Now we don’t see each other. It’s very hard to make work when you’re not in the same room. We’ve never done that. We have to come up with our own stuff at home and send videos to each other. I’m sure every dance company is having the same issue.
MP: What is the biggest challenge Ragamala is facing at this moment?
AR: The thought of work not happening, work you’ve spent years on, is really painful. If performances don’t happen, if for some reason we don’t have tours and don’t have funders … I’m not going there. After all these years of building, building, building up to a certain place that we’ve dreamed of being.
I know everyone is in this position. The arts are always on a tipping point. But I feel like we’ve had growth, we’ve been working so hard to be stable, to salary everybody, and we’re there, and we’re getting commissions and touring, and everything is going great, and then … the unknown.
It’s the unknown. The idea that we have more dreams to achieve, and the idea that those dreams might not exist anymore for anybody.
MP: Do you think this pandemic will change the company?
AS: I think it’s going to change the whole field. … I don’t know what the damage will be, but we always have to hope that art will prevail. Maybe this will be a lesson for people who didn’t go to live performances before. Maybe it will open up more possibilities of what people are willing to see and experience.
Learn more about Ragamala Dance Company:
“Ragamala Dance Company” by Ashwini Ramaswamy (MNOPEDIA article)